Kyrie Eleison: In the Catacombes de Paris

Kyrie Eleison: In the Catacombes de Paris

I've been on vacation for the past couple of weeks, last week in Paris. My daughter and I waited for 2 hours and 45 minutes to get into the Catacombes de Paris, a site that we'd missed the last time we visited and were determined to see this time. The line circled the block, tempers frayed.

The two couples in front of us, who had never met until that day, filled the entire time with conversation, including a detailed comparison between the Australian and American versions of The Price is Right.

The teenagers behind us slowly lost all connection to the civilized world as they pushed against us to move forward, voices rising to shouts. They eventually earned the "stern mother" look from me when they began throwing water at each other, showering us in the process.

Signs at the entrance warn visitors, "The tour is unsuitable for people with heart or respiratory problems, those of a nervous disposition and young children." I wondered if I or anyone nearby had a nervous disposition, and, if so, what the response would be.

Descending into the cool, humid catacomb was a relief from the line. We walked for 5 or 6 minutes through the dim passageways, occasionally hearing echoes of the teenagers behind us.

As we walked along, finally turning a corner and seeing the bones, I wondered why so many people waited so long for this experience.

And then I had a memory. On the day that my mother died, I kept thinking about where she was. My heart knew that she was gone, but my brain struggled for a long time. In my head I imagined how they moved her from her room to the autopsy room and from there to the funeral home.

Seeing the casket lowered into the ground at the cemetery was hard. It was the final access to her physical, material being.

I stayed awake many nights wondering what state her body was in. Maybe that's creepy, but I suspect I'm not unusual in my fixation on the material, the flesh and bones. It's a pretty important part of being human. (Just see the movie "Her" and see if you don't agree.)

I'm pretty sure that's why so many hundreds of people wait in line for more than two hours on a Thursday morning at the Catacombes de Paris. To see what becomes of us after we die. To see the bones.

The remains of about 6 million people are neatly, artistically stacked in the catacombs. Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury oversaw the renovation of the caverns under the city of Paris in the early nineteenth century. We have him to thank for femurs and skulls that form impossibly even walls with aesthetic designs.

As I looked at them, stacks of femurs that looked like cords of wood waiting for winter, I wondered about the people they had belonged to. I wondered if the skulls were cracked before or after death. I wondered if they'd been old or young, happy or not.

All of this information is lost for these bones. They are hundreds of years old and unidentified. They are anonymous.

I felt a sort of grudging acceptance of the human state, and there a sort of peace, too. We are all bound, if not for the bone heap, than certainly for the anonymity that death eventually brings.

It was clear to me, as I looked at one particular skull, that my life and my concerns matter no more and no less than the lives and concerns of these anonymous remains.

We had to climb a spiral stone staircase, 83 steps, to get out of the catacombs. I was glad to get up to the street again, to the sun, to the people. Up here we have names and we have needs. We aren't reduced to bones.

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